Editors' Note: The Christian Post recently spoke with Pastors Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin, stars of the new National Geographic reality show "Snake Salvation" to learn more about their controversial practice of worshipping God with snakes. The extensive interviews with both men, which include questions directly from CP's readers, are featured in four parts.
"Snake Salvation" debuted in early September on the National Geographic Channel and viewers, including readers of The Christian Post, have expressed fascination, repulsion and confusion over the sect of Pentecostal Christians who say they are led by the Holy Spirit to handle poisonous snakes while worshipping God.
"Snake Salvation" focuses on the lives and ministries of Pastor Andrew Hamblin of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., and Pastor Jamie Coots of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church of Middlesboro, Ky. Coots, in his 40s, serves as a mentor of sorts for Hamblin and was the inspiration behind the 23-year-old starting his own snake-handling congregation.
Calling them foolish, crazy, ignorant, or sinful for tempting or testing God (read the remarks here), viewers wonder why Pastors Hamblin and Coots persist in carrying on the 100-year-old practice (read about its history here) that claimed the life of one of their pastor friends last year who refused, until it was too late, to get medical attention after being bit his yellow timber rattlesnake. It is common among serpent-handling Christians to avoid a doctor's care for a snake bite inflicted during worship, but it is not uncommon to seek medical attention for other ailments.
The men and those who practice their faith in like fashion, many of them living in the Appalachian states, say they are compelled by Scripture, particularly Mark 16:17-18 in the King James Version, to pick up serpents. In this Gospel account, Jesus commands his disciples to go to all the world and preach the gospel: " He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."
Despite the deaths and injuries resulting from snake-handling and speculation among scholars that the verses foundation to their faith were not included in the original Gospel of Mark manuscript, Pastors Coots and Hamblin say something greater compels them to keep worshipping God this way.
Below is part one of CP's "Snake Salvation" exclusive interview, in which Pastor Hamblin shares how the Lord "moved on him" in his first-ever snake-handling church service.
CP: Please share a little about your faith journey, like how you came to be a Christian and then a pastor, and so forth?
Hamblin: I grew up in a Free Will Baptist church which I still go back at and preach. My grandpa is a pastor there. My grandparents raised me in church. I still go back and preach there, and my grandpa has been to my church and preached.
I got saved I guess you could say when I was about 15, but I didn't live a (Christian) lifestyle. … I've known about the Lord all my life. When I was about 17 I decided, hey, I'm going to live full time for God and about that time is when I heard about serpent-handling churches. Growing up at our church, we spoke in tongues — even at a Free Will Baptist church — we spoke in tongues, we shouted, danced, believed in baptism of the Holy Ghost, just like a Church of God or Pentecostal church would. So I seen these people handling these snakes, speaking in tongues, receiving baptism of the Holy Ghost, shouting and dancing. I thought, hey, they ain't much different that we are and I want to know if this is real or not.
Well, the first weekend of August was Pastor Jamie Coots's homecoming. I found out about the church and I said, 'Hey, somebody take me over.' Like I said I was 17 and we all got together some of us and they took me. I seen Jamie go and pull two rattlers out of a box during a service, and something just clicked right then. It showed me there has to be something more to this. In May of…(Elizabeth) and I got married, we'd been together since we were 15 year olds and we're soon to be 23 now. We got married and I told her I wanted to begin to go, I wanted to go full time to that church, to Brother Jamie's church.
I joined up over there. I played the guitar, and sang, preached, shouted, but I never would mess with no snakes. They'd handle them elbow to elbow with me, and I'd say, 'Hey, I don't know about this.' I would pray, and a year to the day later that I saw it for the first time in real life, the Lord began to deal with me. The Lord dealt with me with going into a box myself and I was 18 then, of course. I begin to just feel the anointing of God begin to move stronger than I've ever felt it before. I was thinking, 'Lord, I know this is you moving...' I prayed and put a fleece before God, so to speak. I said, 'Lord, if this is you moving...' There was a box of three monster copperheads, I'm talking about 44-, 45-inch-long snakes, and I said, 'Lord if this is you moving...' — that's what I felt like to get out, the biggest one is in the back in a box — I said, 'You will let Brother Jamie go to this box...' that had two black, fresh rattlers that have never been handled, they had just been caught. I said, 'You'll let him go and get both of them out and I'll know that it's You moving on me to do this.'
I hadn't much more than prayed that than here he went. He pulled both of them out. And when he did, I just went numb. The anointing got so strong that I went in the box and I pulled it out myself and handled it what seemed like a lifetime, was only 15, 20, 30 seconds (before I) put it back in the box. I've been going strong ever since.
CP: Why did you agree to participate in "Snake Salvation"?
Hamblin: The only reason that I agreed to participate in "Snake Salvation" was to maybe see someone not be converted to snake handling, that wasn't my goal. If people do get converted — well I won't say converted — I'll say maybe believe in it, begin to believe it, that's wonderful, that's good and so forth. My only reason for participating in "Snake Salvation" was to spread the gospel to the whole country, to the world if you will, to tell somebody that they can be saved. They don't have to believe like me, they don't have to dress like me, they don't have to handle snakes like me. But to let them know that the blood of Christ still saves and he is still real.
It just came to my mind — you have all these TV evangelists and TV pastors and they preach, they preach this and that, and that's wonderful. I just wanted to say, hey, you know I'm just a little country boy, I'm nothing in the sight of man. But because of the blood, I'm something in the sight of God, and I wanted to shine a light to somebody.
My goal has been reached. I've had hundreds upon hundreds of people call me, message me different things like, 'Pastor, we might not ever believe alike, but watching this, it restored my faith in God.' I've had atheists write me and say, 'We watched this, we did not believe that there was a God. We didn't believe in no kind of a supernatural being or anything, but after watching this show there has to be a God.' Then I've had people write me and say, 'Pastor, we're Pentecostal believers and we want to learn more about this, we feel the Lord is dealing with us to do this.'
It has amazed me. I had really and honestly thought that it'd be a flop so to speak, and people would look down on us even worse. But so much good has come out of it that I've seen hardly any bad at all. I mean, I've seen bad. Of course with anything good, there's negative. But I've seen more good than I have bad. Like I said, my main goal is to see somebody get saved. I don't care if they handle snakes or … shout and dance or dress like I do or act like I do. They go join First Baptist, it don't matter to me as long as they get saved.
CP: Please tell me a little about your church, such as how many members you have, how long the church has been around, etc. Also, what's your denomination or tradition?
Hamblin: I will go as far as saying that my group...now most snake handlers are stereotyped as Pentecostal Holiness people. My church, the name of it is Tabernacle Church of God and it was built in 1994 as a Church of God. The man who built it is still the landlord and I still recognize him as a founder of the church and so forth. I still treat him good. He's never handled serpents. It was never a serpent-handling church. It was just a regular Church of God and whenever I'd come along...I've been pastor of it, this November will make it two years. He had shut the church down, he had health issues, he had got sick, different things and I took it over. He's handled them [snakes] since I've been there.
Our church could be deemed as a nondenominational church. We're Christians. Denomination to me is man-made. I mean if you belong to a denominational organization, I mean that's wonderful. If you support your denomination that is even more wonderful because it's so hard to find people who are established. My church in particular, we have Pentecostal doctrines, and Holiness doctrines and Church of God doctrines, but basically we are a nondenominational church.
CP: About how many members do you have?
Hamblin: Last Christmas, we was writing out the treat bag list and I had maybe a hundred and twenty people I think it was. Of course it's hard to get them all together at one time. We usually run...we're like most little Southern churches. We've had 10, 15 (in) a slow service … But, recently, the church has grown. We usually run about every service no less than 30 and no more than 70, 80 people and it's continuing to grow. If everybody shows up at tonight's service that has wrote me and said 'Pastor, we're coming,' we're gonna have over a hundred people there, we'll be packed out.
CP: How often do you hold services?
Hamblin: We have services every Friday at 7:30 and every Sunday afternoon at one o'clock and every first Saturday of the month at 7:30. I always stress this with every interview I do, we want to let everybody that reads this know that they are more than welcome. No matter what denomination or belief, they are more than welcome to come and worship with us and be with us. They do not have to handle the serpents, they don't have to be around the serpents. … We don't handle them [serpents] every service. Anyone that reads this is more than welcome to contact me and come in if they're out of state or wherever and worship with us and just have a good fellowship with God.
CP: What's the worst experience you've had with handling snakes, either for yourself or among your members?
Hamblin: I've not had nothing among my members. The Lord has really blessed us and kept a shield about us. We've never had nothing bad. My worst thing was of course the time I got bit. I wasn't in church handling. I was in the snake room and I got careless. There was no anointing there. When I got bit was really no different than if someone was to get bit in the woods. I just got careless and the rattler just finally bit me, and I suffered greatly.
I did of course, as the whole world knows, I lost a friend last year in May (West Virginia Pastor Mark Randall Wolford). That opens your eyes and lets people realize that...cause people holler the snakes are milked or defanged, yada yada. If they're milked and defanged, then how come someone gets bit and die? Which now I'm the kind of person...now God is not gonna tell us to pick the snake up and let it bite and hurt us and it swell, cause we don't serve a God like that. We serve a loving, caring, merciful God.
But my worst experience was probably when I got bit and suffered. I mean, it hurt like crazy. Thank God had mercy on me, He came by for me. And yes, I did go to the hospital. The reason I tell people I went to the hospital, I was not anointed. God had not told me to handle that snake. Like I said it was no different than (if) I got bit out in the woods like anybody else.
Watch a clip from "Snake Salvation" in which Pastor Hamblin gets "slain in the spirit."